Archives of Sexual fichavior, Vol. 23, No. I, 1994
False Rape Allegations
Eugene J. Kanin, Ph.D. 1
With the cooperation of the police agency of a small metropolitan community,
45 consecutive, disposed, false rape allegations covering a 9 year period were
studied. These false rape allegations constitute 41% the total forcible rape cases
(n = 109) reported during this period. These false allegations appear to sen>e
three major functions for the complainants: providing an alibi, seeking revenge,
and obtaining sympathy and attention. False rape allegations are not the
consequence of a gender-linked aberration, as frequently claimed, but reflect
impulsive and desperate efforts to cope with personal and social stress
KICV WORDS: rape; sexual assault; unrounded rape; rape mythology.
Of the many controversies surrounding the crime of rape, no more
(horny issue arises than that dealing with false allegations. Generally, this
issue is couched in terms of unfounded rape. However, we arc not
addressing that concept here since unfounded rape is not usually the
equivalent of false allegation, in spite of widespread usage to that effect.
There is ample evidence, frequently ignored (see MacDonald, 1971;
Brownmiller, 1975), that in practice, unfounded rape can and docs mean
many things, with false allegation being only one of them, and sometimes
the least of them. Other factors that are typically responsible for
unfounded declarations are victim's late reporting to the police, lack of
corroborating evidence, lack of cooperation by the victim and/or witnesses,
reporting in the wrong jurisdiction, discrepancies in the victim's story,
wrong address given by the victim, victim's drunkenness, victim's drug
usngc, victim's being thought a prostitute, victim's uncertainty of events,
'Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Purdue University, 1365 Winthrop V.. Stone
Mall, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907- J 365.
WXM OOO2/94/O20O 008t $07.00/0 O 1994 Plenum Publishing Corporation
victim's belligerence (Clark and Lewis, 1977; Hunch, 1977- Katz and
Mazur, 1979; Kanin, .985; LaFree, 1989). In sum, the foregoing argdv
represent those conditions that could seriously frustrate efforts to Jrest
and/or conv.ct the offender. This paper deals exclusively with false rape
allegations: the mtentional reporting of a forcible rape by an alleged victim
when no rape had occurred.
False rape charges have probably been in existence as long as the
concep of rape. However, in the 20th century, medical jurisprudence saw
a new development that enabled false allegations to be viewcJ as a singular
instance of gender-related lying, something quite different in nature from
the alse accusat.ons or robbery or burglary that were made by men. In
short, false rape accusations became a reflection of a unique condition of
women, not unhke that of kleptomania (Abelson, 1989). This new devel-
opment was the masochistic nature of woman doctrine, a perspective that
assumed women had a subconscious desire for rape, as evidenced by their
rape fautas.es (Freud, 1933; Deutsch, 1944; Homey, 1933), and tlJ neu-
rotic mdmduals would convert their fantasies into actual beliefs and
memory falsification (for an extensive and critical treatment of this per-
spective, see Edwards, 1981, 1983; Kanin, 1982; Bessmer, 1984) In
add.t.on, some mfluential medical figures adopted the position that false
rape .">»egat,ons were widespread (Menninger, 1933; Guttmacher and Wei-
!«T y legal Sd,oIars «n«>«siastically endorsed this medical
pos.don (W.gmore, 1940; Juliver, I960; Comment, 1973; Hibey, 1973) and
commonly recommended that rape complainants be routinely subjected to psv-
ch.atr.c exam nation , in order to determine their truthfulness (Guttmacher and
We.hofen, 1952; Sherwin, 1973; Comment, 1973). An American Bar
A.ssoc.at.on committee offered a similar recommendation to this effect as
early as 1937-1938 (Weihofen, 1959).
>» legal literature, pseudologia plutntaatica became the authoritn-
ive scientific label for the condition responsible for false rape reporting
(GraMewski, 1958; Juliver, 1960). Pseudologia phantastica was described
as a Delusional state in which the complainant truly believes that she had
been raped although no rape, and perhaps no sexual contact of any kind
. t t ?J e ",S aCC ' SinCC ShC firmly be,ieves t,,is non - facf . her s»ory is un-
shakable (Bessmer, 1984). Less pretentious legal scholars made the same
rT", ^a?f?L m ~ king references to ^lusional and hysterical states
(Smith, 1953-1954; Comment, 1970). In recent years, however, possibly as
a response to the women's movement, members of the mental health and
cgal community have become markedly less likely to express such a posi-
tion on false rape allegations. In England, judges still rather freely comment
on the mendacious nature of women (Lowe, 1984).
Fnlsr Knpe Alfcpnllons
Currently, the two main identifiable adversaries involved in the false
rape allegations controversy are the feminists and the police. The feminists
are by far the most expressive and prominent on this issue. Some feminists
take the position that the declaration of rape as false or unfounded largely
means that the police do not believe the complainant; that is, the rape
charges are real reflections of criminal assault, but the agents of the
criminal justice system do not believe them (Brown miller, 1975; Russell,
1984). Some feminists virtually deny the existence of false rape accusations
and believe the concept itself constitutes discriminatory harassment toward
women (see Grano, 1990). On the other hand, police are prone to say
the reason for not believing some rape complainants resides in the faii
that the rapes never occurred (Payton, 1967; Wilson, 1978; Jay, 1991).
Medical Examiners lend support to this police position by emphasizing
the ever-present possibility that rape complainants may be lying (Shiff,
The purpose of this paper is to report our findings on the incidence
and dynamics of false rape allegations from a long-term study of one city's
This investigation is essentially a case study of one police agency in
a small metropolitan area (population = 70,000) in the Midwestern United
States. This city was targeted for study because it offered an almost model
laboratory for studying false rape allegations. First, its police agency is not
inundated with serious felony cases and, therefore, has the freedom and
the motivation to record and thoroughly pursue all rape complaints. In fact,
agency policy forbids police officers to use their discretion in deciding
whether to officially acknowledge a rape complaint, regardless how suspect
that complaint may be. Second, the declaration of a false allegation follows
a highly institutionalized procedure. The investigation of all rape com-
plaints always involves a serious offer to polygraph the complainants and
the suspects. Additionally, for a declaration of false charge to be made,
the complainant must admit that no rape had occurred. She is the sole
agent who can say that the rape charge is false. The police department
will not declare a rape charge as false when the complainant, for whatever
reason, fails to pursue the charge or cooperate on the case, regardless how
much doubt the police may have regarding the validity of the charge. In
short, these cases are declared false only because the complainant admitted
they are false. Furthermore, only one person is then empowered to enter
into the records a formal declaration that the charge is false, the officer
in charge of records. Last, it should be noted that this department does
not confuse reported rape attempts with completed rapes. Thus, the rape
complainants referred to in this paper are for completed forcible rapes
only. The foregoing leaves us with a certain confidence that cases declared
false by this police agency are indeed a reasonable — if not a minimal —
reflection of false rape allegations made to this agency, especially when
one considers that a finding of false allegation is totally dependent upon
the recantation of the rape charge.
We followed and investigated all false rape allegations from 1978 to
1987. A ranking police official notified us whenever a rape charge was
declared false and provided us with the records of the case. In addition,
the investigating officers provided any requested supplementary information
so that we could be confident of the validity of the false rape allegation
Incidence of False Allegations
Widely divergent viewpoints are held regarding the incidence of false
rape reporting (Katz and Mazur, 1979). For example, reports set the figure
from lows of 0.25% (O'Reilly, 1984) and 1% (Krasner et aL t 1976) to highs
of 80-90% (Bronson, 1918; Comment, 1968) and even 100% (see Kanin,
1985). All of these figures represent releases from some criminal justice
agency or are estimates from clinical practitioners. The extraordinary range
of these estimates makes a researcher suspect that inordinate biases are at
Regarding this study, 41% (n = 45) of the total disposed rape cases
(/i = 109) were officially declared false during this 9-year period, that is,
by the complainant's admission that no rape had occurred and the charge,
therefore, was false. The incidence figure was variable from year to year
and ranged from a low of 27% (3 out of 11 cases) to a high of 70% (7
out of 10 cases). The 9-year period suggests no trends, and no explanation
has been made for the year-to-year fluctuation.
Although very little information exists regarding the characteristics of
the complainant, some data can be offered. These false complainants are
all white, largely of lower socioeconomic background, and the majority were
modestly educated. Only three complainants had any education beyond
high school. The mean age of these women was 22. On the basis of the
limited information available, these women could not be distinguished from
those whose complaints were recorded as valid.
Fnlsc Rape Allegations
The study of these 45 cases of false rape allegations inexorably led
to the conclusion that these false charges were able to serve three major
functions for the complainants: providing an alibi, a means of gaining re-
venge, and a platform for seeking attention/sympathy. This tripartite model
resulted from the complainants' own verbalizations during recantation and
does not constitute conjecture. Of course, we are not asserting that these
functions are mutually exclusive or exhaustive; rather, these rape recanta-
tions focused on a single factor explanation. A possible objection to these
recantations concerns their validity. Rape recantations could be the result
of the complainants' desire to avoid a "second assault" at the hands or the
police. Rather than proceed with the real charge of rape, the argument
goes, these women withdrew their accusations to avoid the trauma of police
Several responses are possible to this type of criticism. First, with very
few exceptions, these complainants were suspect at the time of the com-
plaint or within a day or two after charging. These recantations did nol
follow prolonged periods of investigation and interrogation that would con-
stitute anything approximating a second assault. Second, not one of the
detectives believed that an incident of false recantation had occurred. They
argued, rather convincingly, that in those cases where a suspect was iden-
tified and interrogated, the facts of the recantation dovetailed with the
suspect's own defense. Last, the policy of this police agency is to apply a
statute regarding the false reporting of a felony. After the recant, the com-
plainant is informed that she will be charged with filing a false complaint,
punishable by a substantial fine and a jail sentence. In no case, has an
effort been made on the part of the complainant to retract the recantation.
Although we certainly do not deny the possibility of false recantations, no
evidence supports such an interpretation for these cases.
Of the 45 cases of false charges, over one-half (56%, n = 27) served
the complainants' need to provide a plausible explanation for some sud-
denly foreseen, unfortunate consequence of a consensual encounter, usually
sexual, with a male acquaintance. An assailant is identified in approximately
one half of these cases. Representative cases include the following:
An unmarried 1 6-year-old female had sex with her boyfriend and lalcr became
concerned that she might be pregnant. She said she had been raped by an unknown
assailant in the hopes that the hospital would give her something to abort the
A married 30-year-old female reported that she had been raped in her apartment
complex. During the polygraph examination, she admitted that she was a willing
partner. She reported that she had been raped because her partner did not stop
before ejaculation, as he had agreed, and she was afraid she was pregnant. Her
husband is overseas.
The above cases are prototypical cases where the fear of pregnancy is para-
mount in motivating the rape charge. This theme is constant, only the sce-
nario changes in that the lover is black, the husband is out of state on a
job, the husband had a vasectomy, the condom broke. Only three cases
deviated from this tradition:
A divorced female, 25 years of age, whose parents have custody of her 4 -year-old
child. She lost custody at the time of her divorce when she was declared an unfit
mother. She was out wilh a male friend and got into a fight. He blackened her eye
and cut her lip. She claimed she was raped and beaten by him so that she could
explain her injuries. She did not want to admit she was in a drunken brawl, as this
admission would have jeopardized her upcoming custody hearing.
A 16-ycar-old complainant, her girlfriend, and two male companions were having
a drinking parly at her home. She openly invited one of the males, a casual friend,
to have sex with her. Later in the evening, two other male acquaintances dropped
in and, in the presence of all, her sex partner "bragged" that he had just had sex
with her. She quickly ran out to another girlfriend's house and told her she had
been raped. Soon, her mother was called and the police were notified. Two days
later, when confronted with the contradictory stories of her companions, she
admitted that she had not been raped. Her charge of rape was primarily motivated
by an urgent desire lo defuse what surely would be public information among her
friends at school the next day, her promiscuity.
A 37-ycar-old woman reported having been raped "by some nigger." She gave
conflicting reports of the incident on two occasions and, when confronted with
these, she admitted lhat the entire story was a fabrication. She feared her boyfriend
had given her "some sexual disease," and she wanted to be sent to the hospital to
"get checked out." She wanted a respectable reason, i.e., as an innocent victim of
rape, to explain the acquisition of her infection.
Essentially, this category involved a false rape report as a means of
retaliating against a rejecting male. Twenty-seven percent (/t = 12) of the
cases clearly seemed to serve this function. These rejections, however,
ranged from the very evident cases of women who were sexually and emo-
tionally involved with a reciprocating male to those women who saw
themselves spurned from what was in reality the females' unilateral involve-
ment. Regardless, these women responded with a false rape charge to
perceived rejections. Because the suspect is always identified, the false al-
legations potentially pose the greatest danger for a miscarriage of justice.
Examples of these types of cases are as follows:
False Rape Allegations
An 18-year-old wrJman was having sex with a boarder in her mother's house for a
period of 3 months. When the mother learned of her behavior from other boarders,
the mother ordered the man to leave. The complainant learned that her lover was
packing and she went to his room and told him she would be ready to leave with
him in an hour. He responded with "who the hell wants you." She briefly argued
with him and then proceeded to the police station to report that he had raped her.
She admitted the false charge during the polygraph examination.
A 17-ycar-old female came to headquarters and said that she had been raped by
a house parent in the group home in which she lived. A female house parcnl
accompanied her to the station and told the police she did not believe that a rape
had occurred. The complainant failed the polygraph examination and then admitted
that she liked the house parent, and when he refused her advances, she reported
the rape to "gel even with him."
A 16-year-old reported she was raped, and her boyfriend was charged. She later
admitted that she was "mad at him" because he was seeing another girl, and she
"wanted to get him into trouble."
Although this device seems to be the most extravagant use for which
a false rape charge is made, it is also the most socially harmless in that
no one was identified as the rapist. Approximately 18% (n - 8) of the
false charges clearly served this function. The entire verbalization of the
charge is, by and large, a fabrication without base. The following arc typical
An unmarried female, age 17, abruptly left her girlfriends in the park one afternoon
allegedly to go riding with a young man, a stranger she met earlier that morning
who wanted her to smoke marijuana with him. Later that day, she told her friends
she was raped by this man. Her friends reported the incident to the police, and
the alleged victim went along with the rape charge because "I didn't want them to
know that I lied to them." She explained that she manufactured this story because
she wanted the attention.
An unmarried female, age 17, had been having violent quarrels with her mother
who was critical of her laziness and style of life. She reported that she was raped
so that her mother would "get off my back and give me a little sympathy."
An unmarried female, age 41, was in postdivorcc counseling, and she wanted more
attention and sympathy from her counselor because she "liked him." She fabricated
a rape episode, and he took her to the police station and assisted her in making
the charge. She could not back out since she would have to admit lying to him.
She admitted the false allegation when she was offered lo be polygraphed.
In addition to the foregoing, certain other findings and observations
relevant to false allegations warrant comment. First, false allegations failed
to include accusations of forced sexual acts other than penile-vaginal inter-
course. Not one complainant mentions forced oral or anal sex. In contrast,
these acts were included in approximately 25% of the founded forcible rape
complaints. Perhaps it was simply psychologically and socially more prudent
for these women to minimize the humiliation of sexual victimization by not
embroidering the event any more than necessary. This phenomenon has
been observed previously (McDowell and Hibler, 1987).
Second, although the literature liberally refers to various extortion
scams as responsible for false rape charging (Comment, 1968; MacDonald,
1973), no such cases were encountered or could even be recalled by mem-
bers of the police agency. This type of case may very well be a period
piece, or perhaps it was even then the exceptional case. Extraordinary at-
tention would readily have been forthcoming since this theory nicely
meshed with the position of prevailing authorities who stressed the omni-
present threat of female cunning and stealth. One authority, (MacDonald,
1973), for example, cited a 1918 article (Bronson) to illustrate a blackmail
case since he never encountered one himself.
In a similar vein, no apparent case of pseudologia phantastica sur-
faced. The earlier view of a deluded complainant, tenaciously affirming her
victimization, just does not appear here. These women were not inclined
to put up a steadfast defense of their victimization, let alone pursue it into
the courtroom. Recantation overwhelmingly came early and relatively
easily. Certainly, false rape allegations can arise from a deluded condition
but we failed to find indicators for what was once offered as the most com-
mon explanation for false rape allegation.
One of the most haunting and serious implications of false rape al-
legations concerns the possibility of miscarried justice. We know that false
convictions occur, but this study only tells us that these false accusers were
weeded out during the veiy early stages of investigation. However encour-
aging this result may be, we cannot claim that false charging does not incur
suffering for the accused. Merely to be a rape suspect, even for a day or
two, translates into psychological and social trauma.
We feel that these false accusations can be viewed as the impulsive and
desperate gestures of women simply attempting to alleviate understandable
conditions of personal and social distress and that, as an aggregate, labels
connoting pathology, e.g., delusional states, are uncalled for. One can be
tempted to pigeonhole this type of conduct since we view it as extreme, as
deviant, as criminally reckless. At first glance, false rape allegation seems
to be a rather extreme gesture to satisfy alibi, revenge, or attention needs.
False Rape Allegations
Practitioners in the mental health and legal professions, however, will read-
ily recognize that these false rape reports are not really exceptional
exaggerations in light of what people rather commonly do in order to satisfy
these same needs in other contexts. Consider the extravagant and perjurious
accusations that routinely pepper divorce and child custody proceedings,
and the inordinate departures from the truth that have accompanied crc-
dentialed and respected political and corporate figures in their quest for
recognition and office. And think of the petty and commonplace transgres-
sions that people frequently verbalize as reasons for having committed
No evidence exists to suggest that something unique or defective is
in the female condition that prompts such behavior. Rather, something bio-
logical, legal, and cultural would seem to make false rape allegations
inevitable. If rape were a commonplace victimization experience of men,
if men could experience the anxiety of possible pregnancy from illicit af-
fairs, if men had a cultural base that would support their confidence in
using rape accusations punitively, and if men could feel secure that vic-
timization could elicit attention and sympathy, then men also would be
making false rape accusations.
Most problematic is the question of the generalizability of these find-
ings from a single police agency handling a relatively small number of cases.
Certainly, our intent is not to suggest that the 41% incidence found here
be extrapolated to other populations, particularly in light of our ignorance
regarding the structural variables that might be influencing such behavior
and which could be responsible for wide variations among cities. But a far
greater obstacle to obtaining "true'* incidence figures, especially for larger
cities, would be the extraordinary variations in police agency policies (sec
Comment, 1968; Newsweek, 1983; Pepinsky and Jesilow, 1984); variations
so diverse, in fact, that some police agencies cannot find a single rape com-
plaint with merit, while others cannot find a single rape complaint without
merit. Similarly, some police agencies report alt of their unfounded rape
cases to be due to false allegation, while other agencies report none of
their unfounded declarations to be based on false allegation (Kanin, 1985).
Some of these policies are really nothing more than statistical and proce-
dural legerdemain. On the other hand, a degree of confidence exists that
the findings reported here are not exaggerations produced by some sort of
atypical population, that is, nothing peculiar exists about this city's popu-
lation composition to suggest that an unusual incidence or patterning of
false rape allegations would occur. This city is not a resort/reveling area
or a center attracting a transient population of any kind, attributes that
have been associated with false rape reporting (Wilson, 1978). The major
culprit in this city may well be a police agency that seriously records and
pursues to closure all rape complaints, regardless of their merits. We may
well be faced with the fact that the most efficient police departments report
the higher incidence of false rape allegations. In view of these factors, per-
haps the most prudent summary statement that is appropriate from these
data is that false rape accusations are not uncommon. Since this effort is
the first at a systematic, long-term, on-site investigation of false rape alle-
gations from a single city, future studies in other cities, with comparable
policies, must assess the representativeness of these findings.
In 1988, wc gained access to the police records of two large Midwest-
ern state universities. With the assistance of the chief investigating officers
for rape offenses, all forcible rape complaints during the past 3 years were
examined. Since the two schools produced a roughly comparable number
of rape complaints and false rape allegations, the false allegation cases were
combined, n = 32. This represents exactly 50% of all forcible rape com-
plaints reported on both campuses. Quite unexpectedly then, we find that
these university women, when filing a rape complaint, were as likely to file
a false as a valid charge. Other reports from university police agencies sup-
port these findings (Jay, 1991).
In both police agencies, the taking of the complaint and the follow-up
investigation was the exclusive responsibility of a ranking female officer.
Neither agency employed the polygraph and neither declared the complaint
false without a recantation of the charge. Most striking is the patterning
of the reasons for the false allegations given by the complainants, a pat-
terning similar to that found for the nonstudent city complainants.
Approximately one half (53%) of the false charges were verbalized as serv-
ing an alibi function. In every case, consensual sexual involvement led to
problems whose solution seemed to be found in the filing of a rape charge.
The complaints motivated by revenge, about 44%, were of the same seem-
ingly trivial and spiteful nature as those encountered by the city police
agency. Only one complainant fell into the attention/sympathy category.
These unanticipated but supportive parallel findings on university popula-
tions suggest that the complications and conflicts of heterosexual involve-
ments are independent of educational level. In fact, we found nothing sub-
stantially different here from those cases encountered by our city police
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